Graphic Commissions in Kharkiv. The routine of the State Organisations Seen by the Designers


À l'époque soviétique, l'État était le seul commanditaire de marques industrielles. Les témoignages des designers qui travaillaient au sein des différentes structures et organisations étatiques responsables du développement des marques révèlent les modalités de leur travail. Ils soulignent l'inefficacité, l'isolement et la bureaucratie systémiques soviétiques, ainsi que des zones de liberté inattendues dans la pratique du designer. Ces témoins décrivent la routine du travail, les projets importants réalisés par leur soin ou par leurs confrères, et analysent subjectivement l'évolution des logotypes et de la profession de graphiste à la fin de l’URSS.

In the Soviet period, the state was the only customer of trademarks and any graphic design (applied graphics). The comments of designers who managed to work in the structure of specific state organizations responsible for the development of trademarks reveal the principles of their work, pointing out both systemic Soviet inefficiency, isolation and bureaucracy, and unexpected zones of freedom in the designer’s practice.

The witnesses describe the work routine, individual significant projects of their own or their colleagues, and subjectively analyze the evolution of logo graphics and the profession as a whole in the later years of the USSR.

Kharkiv branch of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry

Orders for graphic design were distributed according to specific tasks set by clients and based on the specialization of each designer. Trademarks were developed by professionals of the highest category. The development of a corporate style was sometimes accomplished by a group of designers. The job would take 2 to 3 weeks. At the adjustment stage, the trademark would be finalized according to the comments by the Arts Council, as well as the client’s specifications. Once the trademark was approved, the designer would caption the image, 15 copies would be produced, the client would pay for the work undertaken, and materials would be sent off to the Patent Office of Ukraine. Fig. 1

Yevhen Sverchkov

Developing graphic marks used to be “a tasty morsel” (highly lucrative), which is why as young artists, we would rarely get to work on any of them. For all the years that I worked at the Kharkiv branch of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, those orders (for graphic marks) were so rare that their total number might not have even reached ten.

An artist-consultant would set tasks, which were followed by the usual preliminary and project activity. The result (always the original final draft) was displayed to the Arts Council, which was to accept or reject the work (in which case it was supposed to be redesigned to be presented at the next Arts Council meeting). Usually, we weren’t aware of what happened to our work once it was submitted to the client.

Oleksandr Bliakher1

Three draft versions of a trademark were presented to the council and the client, it was up to the Council to decide which was to be realized. At the same time, the author’s opinion would differ from the council’s, and yet the decision was up to the latter. Usually, a trademark was developed by one author. Although if the project was large and complex, several designers could work in a team. Personally, I often worked on such big projects alongside my friend and colleague Sasha Bliakher, and involved Herman Driukov for the photo work.

Volodymyr Lesniak2

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry hosted regular exhibitions and conferences.Fig. 2 I particularly remember the All-Union Conference of the Сhamber of Commerce and Industry in Moscow – there we met designers from Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia. We were pleasantly surprised by the sophistication of their work in typefaces, and their fantastic presentation of graphic projects.

Yevhen Sverchkov

Taking part in exhibitions was considered prestigious and was a factor for further orders of work in the future. I hadn’t done any trademarks with the CCI, only nameplates, prospectuses, and catalogs. To me, it was an additional source of income. There was no way to tinker there because of the strict selection procedure. This resulted in professional growth.

Oleh Veklenko3

Our work at the Chamber wasn’t a bad official financial support in addition to our low salaries. Partially, it also prompted the progress in the technical qualities of our work (we would do everything manually, even the millimeter-sized typefaces were done with a brush!). And yet, I would be reluctant to state that any creative growth happened, at least not in my case.

Oleksandr Bliakher

To me, it was a great experience of working, studying and communicating, as well as being a substantial amount of support for my family and my life.

Volodymyr Lesniak

Arts Council of CCI Kharkiv branch

The Arts Council at the Kharkiv branch of CCI was primarily made up of professors of the Kharkiv Art and Industrial Institute, Fig. 3 the professional art school. It was in the official duties of the head of the Kharkiv branch of CCI Nadiia Tychynina and the chair of the advertising department Mykola Vozniuk to be part of the council. The Arts Council would examine graphic marks in their novelty, functional, and aesthetic qualities. If the mark was found to correspond to all the criteria, it would be approved with the official seal of CCI Kharkiv branch, as well as signed by the head of the council and its secretary.

Yevhen Sverchkov

I’m not sure how the Arts Council of CCI Kharkiv branch was formed. It included qualified and respected artists, mostly professionals actively working in this specific field (Vоlodymyr Pobiedin, Mykola Kamennyi, Yevhen Nadiezhdin, Mark Narodytskyi, Volodymyr Holba). Apart from them, the head of advertising department Mykola Vozniuk would also take part in the council’s work, as well as the department’s artist-consultant Volodymyr Kalinin (later Yevhen Sverchkov), and often the head of the Kharkiv branch of CCI Nadiia Tychynina, whose contributions in the discussion were often disruptive.

Oleksandr Bliakher

In my opinion, the council’s work was necessary. It prevented the unprofessional projects that used to be done for enterprises and organizations and would recommend high quality projects instead. However, there was also a problem in its work. It was headed by this lady, former director of the Tyniakov clothing factory. An illustrative example of the so-called “sovok”,4 her behavior was unprofessional and permissive, sometimes even rude, which didn’t bring credit to the council. Many of the respected gray-haired artists would also expose their bad manners or behaviors.

Volodymyr Lesniak

Almost all the members of the Arts Council were also involved in designing graphic marks, and were amongst the first to receive orders. The author of a given graphic mark would not participate in the discussion over it.

Members of the Arts Council did not receive additional payment, but the benefit was being first in line for being commissioned.

Oleh Veklenko

The geography of orders

The Kharkiv Chamber was producing trademarks for the whole country, just like the rest of the CCI branches.

Volodymyr Lesniak

The one and only example I remember is when Leningrad designers had developed a corporate identity for the Kryvorih Shoes Production Plant “Komeks”.

Yevhen Sverchkov

The client’s feedback and the subsequent life of the trademarks

Since we were unable to communicate with the client, most of the time we had no clue about their reaction.

Oleksandr Bliakher

Almost nobody would think of changing a graphic mark after the approval from the Arts Council. Only, many years later, when the country had undergone economic transformations and rules changed, I was surprised by many things I saw.

Volodymyr Lesniak

Remuneration for the work

If my memory serves me right, an approved mark cost 80 Rubles, which was a fair amount at that time. In the case you received two or more orders, your situation was not half bad. Some corporate identity projects were expensive enough, some costing 500 Rubles and up, but these projects required both more time and effort.

Volodymyr Lesniak

Ideological pressure

I think there wasn’t any ideological pressure, we would mostly be guided by our aesthetic principles. On the other hand, at the time the Soviet people had a very clear inner ideological censor.

Oleh Veklenko

I was driven only by aesthetic principles and the functional qualities of the future project.

Yevhen Sverchkov

Nobody ever put pressure on me, I just didn’t let them.

Volodymyr Lesniak

The inner censor was very deeply integrated into the artists’ personalities and those of the artistic council members, so such questions would never even arise. But don’t we have the notion of “political correctness” nowadays, which in its essence is the same censor?

Oleksandr Bliakher

Kharkiv branch of VNIITE (The All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Technological Aesthetics)

The main task of Kharkiv branch of VNIITE was in adding aesthetic features to goods produced by Soviet enterprises. It was a fanciful attempt to make the goods sell not only in the USSR but also beyond its borders.

Oleksandr Bliakher

All the projects at VNIITE departments were done “in front of an audience”, which was often accompanied by informal discussions of the projects with leading professionals: there was an atmosphere of creativity. Before a project’s submission to a client, a meeting of the Arts Council would take place. If needed, the project would subsequently be ameliorated. Between the walls of VNIITE in Kharkiv, a department of artistic construction was functioning as part of Kharkiv Institute of Art and Industry. Authors of the best diploma works would be sent to work at VNIITE, which enlivened the branch with new talent.

Another detail, VNIITE had creative days, when designers were doing creative work outside the institute. This could either be a photo project on any theme, or a painting piece that would later be presented to the council for consideration alongside the commissioned work. From my point of view, the organization of this creative process worked in favor of VNIITE. Orders within CCI were carried out in a more individual way and a more closed atmosphere, where the artist (designer) was able to “cook in their own juice”.

To sum up, I quit the job at CCI and went to VNIITE Kharkiv branch.

Yevhen Sverchkov

A well thought out system with a strong resource base: a research production unit, a photo studio, a photo laboratory, a library supplied with the latest issues of well-known design magazines – all of which is enviable even nowadays. The technical design specification was clear and approved by the client.

Graphic designers had two types of projects: firstly, projects that were developed together with industrial designers (development of graphic marks and the relative documentation – booklets, leaflets, etc.); and secondly the development of corporate identities. They would work in the following stages: familiarizing themselves with the technical design specification, analyzing the tools of manufacture, drafting, drawing, sketching, photo, etc. The final stage was the review. Interactions with clients took place in different ways, but mostly it was direct communication with the heads of enterprises. Graphic marks were submitted in the photo format. I was involved in several projects together with my colleagues.

Iryna Morozova

The Kharkiv office of VNIITE was consciously being destroyed in the years of privatization. Its function was coordinating the development of design in the country, the region, and the city.

It operated in close cooperation with the industry and prompted the development of design and the employment of young professionals.

Volodymyr Lesniak

The sector of Scientific Research at Kharkiv Institute of Art and Industry5

The Sector of Scientific Research was established at the Kharkiv Institute of Art and Industry in the early 1970s with aims of involving students and professors in scientific, practical and artistic activities (which was also a chance for them to earn some money). SSR’s approach to work was research-based and multifaceted, engaging in direct contact with the client with no artistic council as an intermediary.

The research consisted in collecting information on the topic, discovering the comparables and laying out the descriptive part of the project in the explanatory note. Materials were mostly searched for in libraries. Obviously the level was still very primitive, namely because of the lack of professional literature. And yet, this kind of work continued to be carried out in that period.

Of the works that I was in charge of, which were produced in the framework of SSR, the most remarkable were: the graphic style for the 50th anniversary of Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, the graduate work of V. I. Lesniak developed in 1977-1978; the design and the accompanying graphics for pocket radio “Olympic” (developed in 1979-1980 together with designer Volodymyr Davydov) produced at the Svitlovodsk Radio Manufacturing Plant; Fig. 4 the corporate identity for “Sportzabezpechennia” (provision office for the sports) of the Committee of Physical Culture and Sports at the Council of Ministers of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic (developed in 1984-1985 together with Volodymyr Lesniak).

Oleksandr Bliakher

Advertising Combine

With the launch of mass privatization at the dawn of the Perestroika period, the Advertising Combine ceased to function. All work was carried out for trade enterprises, shops, public nutrition establishments, restaurants, etc. Orders for logos that would use words, including the ones for shops’ plaques, were often made in a combined effort that dealt with both the interior and exterior design. In many of those projects, I worked with the wonderful architect and manager Mykhailo Hladkov.

Volodymyr Lesniak

Alternative places of work

The late 1980s is the era of “cooperatives”.6 In 1988, Mykola Shtok and I both voluntarily resigned from our positions at the Institute of Art and Industry7 Fig. 5 and registered our creative cooperative ABC. Kolia (Mykola) was the chairperson and I was something like the local committee representative. The title denoted active work with typefaces, but later, Kolia invented a way to decode the acronym: Art Business Center. We had moved to my studio in the center of Kharkiv (at the corner of Sumska and Mayakovskoho Street). There we used to work all day long, every day. Through some friends, we were able to contact the administrator of the opera and ballet theater, GRANT bank (perhaps the only projects partially realized back then), “Metalist” Football Club, and some other clients. At the time, cooperatives, the shared enterprises in the form of LLC and private joint-stock companies were mushrooming, as soon as one shut a new one sprung up in its place. We made project proposals for many of them.

I still consider the Kharkiv period of our activity to be one of the most sincere and vibrant in my life. We would make dozens and hundreds of sketches, drafting on graph paper in large scale, gluing huge texts letter by letter, then rephotographing them on industrial film and printing in the appropriate size. The result of this technology was ineffective and quite dry. We tried to compensate for this with our creative style and serious approach to graphic elements, the choice of typefaces and graphic mark production.

Back then there had been no client managers yet, so Kolia, as the chair of our cooperative, used to visit the clients with draft projects by himself. In the first six months, we didn’t earn a dime. Within a year we’d closed the cooperative due to its uselessness. But that work was not for nothing, we gained a lot of experience and established solidarity. When Volodymyr Lesniak had proposed to join the newly created “Graphic Design Bureau”, we gladly accepted his invitation.

Later (starting probably from 1992), when we got back to self-employment, we’d rename our collective to SHTAB: Shtok-Taboryski. With this title, we took part in contests and participated in several exhibitions which at that point were quite rare. In 1995, we were noted and invited to work at IMA-press.

Yevhen Taboryskyi

At the “Graphic Design Bureau” studio, gathered the best young designers of Kharkiv – my former students and colleagues. We did everything: interiors, object design, graphic design.

Volodymyr Lesniak

Specifics of a graphic designer’s work in the Soviet Kharkiv and the USSR in general

In Soviet times, the term “designer” was rare: industrial graphic artist or layout artist were more common. The Institute’s graduates would search for work at industrial enterprises, where they had to perform all types of work, including layouts and decoration. At the same time, some enterprises were successfully realizing projects by graphic design professionals – for example, the Kharkiv Bicycle Plant. Fig. 6

Yevhen Sverchkov8

The occupation was respected and considered elite, few people would end up there accidentally. Professional responsibility and an unmeasured love for one’s profession.

Volodymyr Lesniak

At the time, there was little imposition from the client’s side, as they had no contact with the maker. Our own taste, knowledge, and professionalism was the foundation for the creation of graphic marks.

Oleh Veklenko

Of course, it would be ridiculous to compare the technology of today with the past. And yet, the ambition to hone the shape and make the mark as eloquent as possible produced a remarkable effect even back in those times. Fig. 7

The work of a graphic designer in the Soviet period often resembled running in place. Using a lot of energy and time, often to no result. I think in the USSR, this situation was pretty much the same in different occupations, not only in graphic design.

Oleksandr Bliakher

How trademarks and the profession changed from the 1960s through the 1980s

Marks of the 1960s-1970s, were applied graphics with decorative features. Those were more narrative and illustrative. In the 1980s, the graphic mark displayed the attributes of European graphic design: in its simplest form, more minimalist, from deep philosophical thought, it corresponded to its time. Integration into worldwide processes of development of graphic design opened up the access to information.

Volodymyr Lesniak

With a big increase to the access of professional information and higher education establishments which readied professionals for industry, by the mid 1980s it became possible to see very interesting and collaborative (which is the main difference from the onetime graphic mark development in the 1960s) works by designers from Moscow, Leningrad, Kharkiv, and the Baltic cities.

To add to this, they (the designers) were catching up to the global trends and styles of the time. By now, one could talk about “design”, and not only about “applied graphics”. One of the factors also involved was the newly established groups of designers in Moscow, who’d been developing corporate styles for foreign trade organizations selling Soviet products abroad. These were of high professional quality. Guidebooks on their usage were printed abroad. In the same period, the number of articles in the All-Union Advertising magazine dedicated to graphic design and Soviet designers from different schools had increased. Exhibitions and public actions were organized around the magazine, which was a fruitful ground for improving the quality of projects. After 1985, as a result of political and economic transformations, the demand for graphic designers drastically increased in the country.

Oleksandr Bliakher

From the late 1970s and early 1980s, the development of corporate styles sprang up, mostly in the sector of industrial enterprises. Amongst the first styles that I developed was the CONSTAR enterprise style (Gas Turbines Plant in Kryvyi Rih). I’d worked with Oleksandr Iskin, who later moved to Germany and worked as a graphic designer at Komplys advertising agency. His landmark piece was the development of the new logo for BRAUN. Fig. 8

Yevhen Sverchkov

My first attempt to develop a corporate identity was in 1975, when I’d been working at the SSR. This was an integrated order by Kharkiv Orhtech-nika plant (formerly titled Avtoruchka). I had been making various graphic and advertising elements for the enterprise for about two years. I had also redesigned their logo. Unfortunately, I don’t have any copies of that work.

Oleksandr Bliakher

Around 1985, I started to work on corporate styles for the Culture Directorate, the Union of Artists, etc. Those were styles used at cultural events and festivals: the All-Union Shevchenko Feast, the anniversary of Ilia Riepin, and so on.

Oleh Veklenko

I designed my first corporate style in 1978 for the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology. Fig. 9 Fig. 10 In 1979, I worked with the Chamber and made another one for the 100th anniversary of “Serp i Molot” (Hammer and Sickle) engine plant. In the early 1980s, I created a corporate identity for “Monolit” plant (formerly named after Shevchenko). In 1985, it was for the 100th anniversary of Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute.

Volodymyr Lesniak

The graduate work of Lesniak in 1978 (directed by Oleksandr Bliakher) was, in my opinion, the first design approach to solving complex tasks in a corporate identity, and a new one for Ukraine at the time. Five years later, together with Natasha Buhaienko in our graduate work (corporate style for Mykolayiv Shipbuilding Plant directed by Lesniak) we tried to also use the integrated approach in our exercises; however, it was not entirely successful. Fig. 11

The feeling (or a conscious understanding) of a full-fledged designer’s trajectory and involvement with the profession occurred only in the early 1990s. This was instigated by different factors: the first professional exhibitions and publications, as well as the organization of a designers’s union, and the digital technology that had only begun its development.

Yevhen Taboryskyi

  1. Born in 1950 in Kharkiv, currently living in New-York)↩︎

  2. Born in 1949, currently living in Kharkiv.↩︎

  3. Born in 1950 in Lubny, currently living in Kharkiv.↩︎

  4. Sovok (derogatory) is a person uncritically supporting Soviet values or having a Soviet mentality. (Ed. Note)↩︎

  5. See also on Problemata : Liia BEZSONOVA. USSR CCI, VNIITE, SADL, Sector of Scientific Research…↩︎

  6. Cooperative, is independent worker-owned organizations that operated in the Soviet Union, as opposed to state-owned enterprises. (Ed. Note)↩︎

  7. Kharkiv Art and Industrial Institute. (Ed. Note)↩︎

  8. Born in 1957 in Kharkiv, currently living in Zurich.↩︎